Jacob Weisberg, Chronicling 'The Bush Tragedy'
Slate magazine editor Jacob Weisberg has a few things to say about the presidency of George W. Bush. He's assembled his thoughts in a book called The Bush Tragedy, which Time magazine political columnist Joe Klein calls a "scorching, powerful and entirely plausible account" of an administration whose "epic collapse" Klein has lately been writing about.
Other segments from the episode on January 24, 2008
DATE January 24, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Author Jacob Weisberg discusses new book "The Bush
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest Jacob Weisberg is the editor in chief of the online magazine Slate
and the author of the new book "The Bush Tragedy." He says the book isn't
intended as an indictment. The book assumes Bush has failed as president,
which is a sentiment Weisberg thinks even many conservatives share. Weisberg
points to the war in Iraq as an example, which he describes as having
squandered much of America's global leadership role, making the country weaker
diplomatically, militarily and economically. Weisberg's goal is to try and
understand what went wrong in the Bush presidency by examining the president
within the context of his relationships with his family, his advisers and his
religion. Weisberg thinks President Bush's relationship with his father is at
the core of his presidency and its failures. I asked Weisberg why.
Mr. JACOB WEISBERG: Well, I think it's evident in all sorts of Bush's
actions. I think if you look at his life, you see, really, a very poignant
story in many ways of someone growing up in the shadow of an incredibly
powerful father, someone who was revered in the family, considered to be
almost a kind of Superman. It's funny because people outside the family
haven't always seen the elder Bush that way, but here was a man who was a
talented athlete, a scholar, a war hero, who went into the oil business, made
a lot of money, did incredibly well, went into politics, was successful, good
at everything he tried with this amazing sense of ease.
And I think to be the son of a man like that is inevitably difficult. And for
George W. Bush, it was particularly difficult because he didn't seem to have
any of those skills. I think he wasn't particularly good at sports. He tried
to do all of the things his father did, and in many cases created a kind of
parody. You know, he went to the same schools but he didn't do well. He went
into the oil business and stumbled around. Instead of being a war hero, he
was in the Air National Guard avoiding Vietnam. And I think you see this
pattern where, for the whole first part of his life he's trying to do what his
father did and failing at it. And I think it makes him very unhappy. I think
it explains his drinking, among other things.
And then I think he has this transformation, a kind of midlife crisis around
the age of 40, where he stops drinking. He finds God. But, perhaps more
importantly, he somehow figures out how to differentiate himself from his
father, to stop trying to do everything his dad did.
GROSS: Do you think religion is an example of how he differentiated himself
from his father?
Mr. WEISBERG: Absolutely. In the Bush family--they're Episcopalians--and
expressions of religious feeling are almost considered in kind of bad taste.
And the son, George W. adopts evangelical style and evangelical beliefs that
are very alien in the Bush family. It's one of a lot of ways in which I think
he sort of takes his father as a starting point and defines himself in
GROSS: Compare his style of leadership to his father's and what you think
that reflects about their personalities.
Mr. WEISBERG: Well in terms of style, their decision making, I think, really
couldn't be any more different. The father--I had an interesting conversation
with Brent Scowcroft about this when I was working on the book. The father,
particularly in foreign policy, which is his passion, is methodically, detail
oriented, thorough, considered. He entertains inconclusive debate where
there'll be people arguing on opposite sides, and he doesn't feel compelled to
reach resolution right away. And, very importantly, he's capable of changing
his mind. The son has always prided himself on being just the opposite. In
fact, he saw that style of decision making of his father's as a kind of
weakness of his father's; part of the reason he thinks his father was a failed
president who didn't get re-elected.
Bush is, in his famous nickname he gave himself, "the decider." He decides
everything quickly. He doesn't need a lot of information. He doesn't want to
hear a debate. He doesn't review his decisions much after he's made them, and
he doesn't change his mind.
GROSS: Now, you mentioned Brent Scowcroft. And Brent Scowcroft has been
opposed to the war in Iraq right from the start and has been pretty critical
of President George W. Bush even though he was a close adviser to President
Bush's father. And you say that George W. Bush never really got along with
Scowcroft, never really liked him?
Mr. WEISBERG: Somehow he's very--George W. has been very hostile to Brent
Scowcroft for a long time. And it's funny, if you look at the people around
his father and decided who were you likely to have a personality clash with,
Brent Scowcroft would be at the bottom of the list because he's a very nice
man, warm, easy to get along with, generous. James Baker maybe you could
understand; he's a little more abrasive. But somehow George W. has, I think,
made Brent Scowcroft into this figure of opposition, someone who embodies his
father's views that he projects but to whom he doesn't owe the affection and
loyalty he owes his father.
But I think it's been mystifying to Scowcroft. Scowcroft doesn't talk openly
about this because he's very loyal to the father and to the whole family. But
there's this tremendous hostility he radiates towards Scowcroft, and I have a
couple of scenes in the book where essentially the father is trying to use
Scowcroft to get a message through to the son, first about why he thought
going to Iraq was a bad idea--I think Scowcroft was very much speaking for the
father about that--and then after the war about how maybe to reverse course
and do something about the way Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense, was
mismanaging things. And Bush reacts with utmost hostility to Scowcroft's
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit about President Bush and religion. You say
that religion is one of the places in which the younger Bush really
differentiated himself from his father. You describe President Bush as having
a theology free of content but being sophisticated and artful at applying
religion to politics. In what way do you see the president's theology as
being free of content?
Mr. WEISBERG: Well, it's a kind of--when I started the book, I thought,
`When I understand George Bush's religious ideas, when I understand what he
believes, I'll be much closer to understanding his policy, why he's done what
he's done, who he is.' And I found just the opposite in a way, that when you
tried to pin down George W. Bush's religious beliefs, there really weren't
very many of them. He believes in God. He believes it's good to believe in
God. He believes that faith saved his life, that it helped him turn his life
around. He believes faith has this transforming power for other people. But
what is the faith itself? It's not any particular revealed truth and it
certainly doesn't seem to have much impact on his specific decisions. I think
when you look around for some sort of theological explanation of why he's
invaded Iraq or why he's taken the position he has in the Arab-Israeli
conflict, you don't find it. It's not there.
And I think, also, when you look at his--what he's said about his religion,
you find some real paradoxes and some real distortions. But it's a paradox.
It's sincere, he believes; but at the same time, it's very calculated
GROSS: What's an example of a story that he's told about his religious life
that you think is distorted?
Mr. WEISBERG: Well, my favorite is the famous walk on the beach with Billy
Graham. He's told the story. He tells it in "A Charge to Keep," which is his
campaign autobiography about how he was up at Kennebunkport and Billy Graham
said, `Are you right with God?' And Bush said, `No, but I'd like to be.' And
they took what Bush describes as a long walk on the beach and discussed Bush's
problems, and he talks about how Billy Graham essentially was the messenger,
how Billy Graham changed his life. Well, Billy Graham, when confronted with
this story, was always a little bit befuddled because he clearly didn't
remember anything like that happening. And at one point he said, you know,
`By the way, there isn't actually any beach up there in Kennebunkport.' So it
wasn't clear where they would have taken a walk.
But then I found an interesting source, which was a campaign book written for
the religious book market in 1987 about George H.W. Bush, when he was getting
ready to run for president. And this was a book that was written by a man
named Doug Wead. And it was an effort, essentially, to present George H.W.
Bush, who had always been seen as a very secular figure who, you know, revered
the separation of church and state, to present him as appealing to the
evangelicals. And in it George W. Bush talks about Billy Graham and tells
what's clearly the first version of this story, but there's no walk on the
beach. It's a family conversation with Graham, and Bush talks about how later
this has an impact on him.
I think he--I'm not sure that it's a conscious deception, but I think Bush has
molded this kind of faith narrative for himself, which has significant
anomalies in it. In fact, I think he did have a born again experience. I
think it was three years earlier, in 1984 in Midland, Texas, and it came at
the hands of this interesting character named Arthur Blessitt, who was a
charismatic sort of Jesus freak who has been dragging a 14-foot--I'm sorry, an
11-foot cross around the world for years.
GROSS: I should just stop and say when you say "Jesus freak," that was an
expression that was used in the late '60s and early '70s to describe kind of
hippy evangelical Christians. It was an expression from the period. You're
Mr. WEISBERG: Yes, that's right. I'm not--I'm not...
GROSS: I was going to say, you're not using that as an insulting...
Mr. WEISBERG: Terry, thank you for saving me from myself.
Mr. WEISBERG: I think that would have been a description that members of the
Jesus movement would have applied to themselves, and in fact Arthur Blessitt
preached in LA. He had this famous ministry on the Sunset Strip and was known
as the psychedelic minister. And it's funny--I've read some of this
literature--they very much present Jesus as an alternative to drugs, but using
much of the same language about this is life's greatest trip and so on.
GROSS: How did George W. Bush meet Blessitt?
Mr. WEISBERG: He met Blessitt--Blessitt was an itinerant minister. I mean,
as I said, he drags this enormous cross around the world. But he would give
sort of revival-type meetings, particularly in the South, but around the
country in big stadiums. And he was appearing in Midland over several days in
1984. And George W Bush, according to the version I heard from a couple of
people, was driving in his car around Midland--time when things were not going
well in the oil business, not going well in his life--and he heard Blessitt on
the radio. And he called a friend of his who he thought knew Blessitt and he
said, `I don't want to go to this big revival meeting with thousands and
thousands of people, but I'd like to meet Blessitt.' And they met in the
restaurant at the top of the Holiday Inn in Midland, Texas, with this friend
and George W. Bush and Blessitt. And they had a dialogue, which Blessitt has
actually written about. He has a Web site and he records this in impressive
detail. He seems to remember, but the details confirm by the third person who
was there. And the dialogue echoes almost precisely the dialogue that George
W. Bush attributes to his conversation with Billy Graham.
GROSS: Such as?
Mr. WEISBERG: `Are you right with God?' `No.' `Would you like to be?' `Yes.'
`Do you accept Jesus as your personal savior?' That's a little snippet of it.
But you can--the sequence is almost precisely the same.
GROSS: So if, you know, so you're saying that President Bush has presented
his spiritual autobiography slightly different than it actually happened. Are
you suggesting that his religion is insincere or that he's insincere in
discussing his religion?
Mr. WEISBERG: No. That, I think, is the paradox of it. I think it is both
sincere and calculated. I think faith is very important to him. I think it
did help him to change his life. I think he thinks it's very good for people
and he's supportive, in a way, of all religions. But he doesn't conform in
all sorts of way to the evangelical paradigm. He clearly doesn't believe in
trying to convert other people, which most evangelicals do. Even his own
family, he doesn't appear to have tried to interest his daughters particularly
in religion. After his religious conversion, he still gambled, played poker.
He was still drinking at that time. He swears. The president is quite
profane. If you read various accounts, you'll get lots of examples of this.
Most evangelicals don't swear. They tithe. They believe in giving 10 percent
of what they earn to charity. President Bush doesn't do that.
There are all sorts of ways in which you look and you say, `Hm, he's a born
again evangelical, but he doesn't do all of these things that born again
Christians do.' And it's not that he is insincere or that it's fake--I think
it's very real to him, and it's become more important to him over time. At
the same time, there is this element of political calculation that has been
absolutely present from, I think, almost the moment of his conversion.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jacob Weisberg. He's editor of
the online magazine Slate and author of the new book "The Bush Tragedy."
Now, you've been collecting Bushisms for many years and printing them in books
and in Slate magazine. Just for anybody who isn't aware of it, explain what a
Bushism is and give us a couple of classic examples.
Mr. WEISBERG: When I started covering Bush during the 2000 campaign, I would
hear these really funny mistakes come out of his mouth, and I started to
collect them on Slate. I was at that point the chief political correspondent
before I was editor, and we would put them up as "Bushism of the Day." This
term has happily now entered the language. And, you know, a Bushism is when
Bush would say, `I know how hard it is to put food on your family.' Or,
`Rarely is the question asked, is the children learning?' You know, for some
reason so many of them seem to involve education. But they were these
malapropisms or spoonerisms, all kinds of mistatements. But in some ways,
Terry, this is my penance for doing six collections of Bushisms because I do
think Bushisms give a misimpression of Bush; and the misimpression is they
make him sound like he's dumb.
I have a quote from Bill Clinton in my book from around the time of the 2000
campaign. Clinton told people--and I think this was after Bush was
re-elected--`Bush doesn't know anything. He doesn't want to know anything,
but he's not stupid.' I don't think Bush is highly intelligent. I don't think
he's highly literate. I don't think he's well read. I think he's still on
the low end of the spectrum of presidential intelligence. He has some
particular kinds of intelligence that serve him very well. He has a strong
interpersonal intelligence in that he reads people very quickly and very well,
and is actually very quick witted in person. And he has a kind of political
intelligence, which is that he simply responds and assimilates the political
dynamic of issues very, very quickly and well.
One of my favorite Bushisms, Terry, was when he was running in 2000, Gail
Sheehy wrote a piece in Vanity Fair that said, among other things, that he had
dyslexia and that it ran in the family. And Bush was asked for comment about
it. And he said, `That woman who said I had dyslexia, I never interviewed
GROSS: Now, you think that the Bush presidency has failed spectacularly, but
you don't think he's guilty of impeachable offenses.
Mr. WEISBERG: I don't. I think his--I think he's made bad mistakes, but I
don't think he's committed high crimes and misdemeanors. I think it's
probably pretty academic at this point, anyway. There wouldn't be a lot of
time left to impeach him. But, no, I don't think that we want to criminalize
his error. I think we want to understand it. And at the same time, I think
we want to give him a little sympathetic room, I mean, try to understand why
this man made these kinds of decisions. Because I think when you look at this
in the way that I have, you end up in a position where you say nothing Bush
did was surprising. If you understood the family relationships, if you
understood his competition with his brother Jeb, if you understood the way he
grew up in the shadow of his father, it all starts to be clear; and I think it
was all certainly knowable by 2004, but mostly knowable in 2000. So in many
ways you have to ask who's at fault here. Well, I think Bush is at fault for
trying to do something beyond his basic capacities--I don't think he was ever
capable of being a good president--but ultimately you have to fault the people
who elected him not once but twice because they should have known better and
could have known better, certainly the second time if not the first time.
GROSS: Well, Bush started off incredibly popular and now he's become an
incredibly unpopular president. You're criticizing the American public for
not having known better, for not being able to see the kinds of problems you
thought it was likely he would have. What conclusions does that lead you to
reach about campaigning or elections or how people vote in the United States?
Mr. WEISBERG: I think it makes me think we need to understand people better.
I think--well, understand candidates better, that character is very important,
background is very important, family relationships are very important. And we
have to try to understand these people beyond just the level of policy and
GROSS: But let me ask you, you say there should be more of an emphasis on
people's background, who they are as people. But during the 2000 campaign
between Bush and Gore, so much of seemed to be not about policy. I mean, Gore
was losing points for being perceived as too smart, too much like the smart
kid in your class in grade school that you didn't like, and people said they
wanted to go have a beer with George W. Bush. They seemed to like his
personality, and a lot of people voted for him because of that. And Bush's
personal story, particularly his spiritual story, was such an important part
of who he was as a campaigner for president. There seemed to be very little
emphasis on policy in some ways during that campaign.
Mr. WEISBERG: Yeah, I covered Bush in 2000 and I had a positive personal
reaction to him. I thought he'd be a good guy to have a beer with. Of
course, it would have to be a nonalcoholic beer, which was his drink, in fact.
But I think there's a difference between personality, affability on the one
hand and character on the other. Understanding who someone is isn't the,
`Wouldn't you like to have a beer?' question. Isn't the, `What are they
really like?' question. It's a `Who are they really?' question. It's, `What
do they believe? Why do they believe it? What formed them? What are they
likely to do as president?'
And, you know, it's a very hard thing to understand going forward. It's a
much easier thing to understand looking back. But at the same time, I think
we as voters owe it to ourselves to try to understand these people at the
deepest level we can, and they give us a lot of clues. You know, campaigns
are in many ways very superficial; but at the same time, over a lifetime of
speaking and writing, candidates do leave some clues about who they really
In the case of some of the candidates, I mean, I think of Barack Obama this
time, who wrote this amazing autobiography at a very young age and has given
us a way to understand him that you rarely can understand anyone in politics.
With Hillary Clinton it's a little harder, but the evidence is there, you just
have to look for it.
GROSS: Well, the George W. Bush era is ending, so let's look ahead to what's
coming next. Let's talk a little bit about the presidential primary season
this year. Did you see the Democratic debate in Myrtle Beach Monday night
that was shown on CNN and moderated by Wolf Blitzer?
Mr. WEISBERG: I did.
Mr. WEISBERG: And I think that was, of the debates I've watched--there have
been a tremendous number of them this time--but it was fun to watch because it
was so aggressive. You know, we've known that Hillary Clinton was going to go
after Obama, that she was going to go negative on him; but I was surprised by
the extent of it, the harshness of it, and then by John Edwards piling on. I
think I've assumed that Obama was Edwards' second choice and that at some
point I think he's likely to get out of the race, and I sort of assumed he
might get out in favor of Obama; but it sure didn't look like that on Monday
GROSS: So much of the debate and the news-making aspect of the debate on
Monday was about the feud between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, as opposed
to policy differences. And in some ways I think people are a lot more
interested in the feud because it's kind of like a soap opera. It's kind of
like a TV miniseries where there's people fighting with each other and like,
`Who's quarrelling with who?' As opposed to following nuances on policy, which
are difficult to follow. It requires reading more carefully. It's not fun in
the way a soap opera is fun. And I guess I've been trying to figure out how
much of this in-fighting is coming from the candidates themselves and how much
is it that the media is focusing on this, particularly, you know, some of the
TV media because it is so dramatic. And if that's what makes news, maybe
you'd do more of it because that's what gets you the attention.
Mr. WEISBERG: Yeah. I think policy as a subject in presidential campaigns
has had a kind of independent career. The high watermark was 1992 when really
all of the candidates had very, very detailed policy positions. In some ways
Ross Perot kicked that off. But, you remember, that was the year Bill Clinton
put out this book "Putting People First," which had really impressively
detailed policy positions in all sorts of areas, and in many ways having Paul
Tsongas do the same thing on the Democratic side; and in many ways having
detailed policy platform was kind of the price of admission to being taken
seriously as a candidate. I thought that was very good; but at the same time,
if you look back at Bill Clinton's policy document from 1992, things worked
out pretty differently. And they always do. There's a lot of policy that can
only be made in consultation with Congress. You know, a president under our
system doesn't get elected and implement his platform.
So I think in many ways it's possible to overestimate policy because you are
not--just because you vote for the candidate doesn't mean you're going to get
the policy they support. In fact, a candidate with a different policy may be
in a better position on something like health care to implement or get past
something closer to what you want. But, at the same time, I share some of
your dismay that policy has been de-emphasized to the extent it has. I think
there's been less policy in every campaign since 1992, and I personally would
like to see a lot more of it.
GROSS: You've covered political campaigns. Do you think that the primary
season has gotten completely out of control, that it's much too long, there's
so many debates, and everybody who is campaigning can't really be doing their
job as, you know, what they've been elected to do?
Mr. WEISBERG: I think the primary system has become absolutely indefensible
in a number of ways. I mean, even before it got so out of hand in terms of
the early starts, I think it was very hard to defend in principle, giving such
disproportionate power to two states--to Iowa and New Hampshire. And I think
that remains true.
But this time, because of the unwillingness, particularly on the Democratic
side, to challenge the traditional primacy of those two states, you've ended
up disenfranchising voters. I mean, in Michigan and in Florida, the
Democratic Party has decided that it's essentially not going to count the
votes of the primary voters because these states have decided to give
themselves a shot at mattering. And for Democrats to disenfranchise voters in
Florida after what happened in 2000? I mean, I think it's terrible to
disenfranchise voters anywhere, but I think the system is beyond broken. I
think it's a travesty. And, of course, it goes on much too long for all sorts
GROSS: Religion is an interesting issue in the Republican primary. You know,
Mike Huckabee is the only candidate who describes himself as an evangelical,
yet he hasn't won the support of the older evangelical leadership. And some
people say he's kind of like a wedge between the two generations of
evangelicals. And, you know, Mitt Romney is Mormon. I guess I want to refer
to an article that you wrote in Slate a little over a year ago in which you
were writing about Romney's religion and whether that should be an issue or
not. And let me just read a little bit of what you wrote there.
Mr. WEISBERG: Sure.
GROSS: You wrote: "If Romney gets anywhere in the primaries, religion will
become an issue with moderate and secular voters, and rightly so. Objecting
to someone because of his religious beliefs is not the same thing as prejudice
based on religious heritage, race or gender. Not applying a religious test
for public office means that people of all faiths are allowed to run, not that
views about God, creation and the moral order are inadmissible for political
Would you expound on that a little bit and talk about what you think is
admissible and inadmissible in talking about a politician's religion and using
their religion to help you decide whether to vote for them or not?
Mr. WEISBERG: Yes, Terry. I was going to say, even though I wrote that a
year ago, I still think it.
I think what I was reacting to at that point was Romney's very early gestures
to say that Mormonism should be off the table. It was outrageous for anyone
to say that that could be a factor in their vote. And I think politicians
want to have it both ways on this score. They want to appeal to religious
voters on a religious basis. They want to present themselves as religious
people the way it helps them. But they want to be immune from any kind of
criticism or question about their religious beliefs, and I think you have to
draw a distinction between objecting to someone based on who they are, what
religion they were born in--which is a kind of prejudice or discrimination--as
opposed to evaluating somebody's views. And I think the one of the lessons
from the Bush presidency is that someone's beliefs matter, whether they're
philosophical beliefs, religious beliefs or how all of those things work
And all religious views are not equal. I mean, I would tend to be very
skeptical of anybody who had any kind of fundamentalist or literal minded
belief in any religion, and particularly I would be skeptical of someone who
was a member of a cult or a young religion that doesn't have a kind of long
tradition of evolving into sort of metaphor and developing sort of reform as
well as fundamentalist wings.
GROSS: In your estimation, people didn't pay enough attention to George W.
Bush's religion in 2000 when he was elected the first time.
Mr. WEISBERG: I think that's right. And I think what's most important about
it is, again, not the theology--because there's not very much theology
there--but the fact that religion is part of the way he decides thing
peremptorily. Because he sees things very simply in terms of right and wrong,
because he has a simple moralistic outlook on the world, I think it is--he
uses religion--one of the ways he uses religion unproductively is to avoid
debate, discussion, deep thinking, reconsideration. It helps him jump to a
conclusion. And I think understanding the way his mind works and the way he
uses religion as a kind of crutch for that, I think is something we should
have understood better.
GROSS: Jacob Weisberg, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. WEISBERG: Thank you, Terry. It's a pleasure.
GROSS: Jacob Weisberg is the editor in chief of the online magazine Slate and
author of the new book "The Bush Tragedy."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Army National Guard Captain Sean Michael Flynn
discusses his book "The Fighting 69th"
TERRY GROSS, host:
New York's Fighting 69th is one of many National Guard units that has been
called up for duty in Iraq. My guest Sean Michael Flynn commanded two rifle
companies in the 69th and now has written a new book called "The Fighting
69th: One Remarkable National Guard Unit's Journey from Ground Zero to
Baghdad." The Fighting 69th was famous as a largely Irish unit with a
distinguished combat record. But by 2001, Flynn says this unit was a
multicultural group comprised largely of immigrants and New Eurekans from the
lower economic classes. Flynn writes, "Most had no prior military experience
and no intention of serving their country any longer than it took to get a
paycheck or college credit or job training. Their uniforms are often
incomplete and worn to look better in the hood than in the wood: black Tupac
bandanas instead of helmets, low riding camouflage pants, unlaced boots. When
they marched, it was more of a pimp roll or gangster limp. If they didn't
feel like doing Army duties, they'd tell you to stick it."
Sean Michael Flynn, welcome to FRESH AIR. What was the Fighting 69th's
reputation before it was activated after 9/11?
Mr. SEAN MICHAEL FLYNN: I think some people didn't think the Fighting 69th
could get out of its own way. It was underfunded. It was ill-equipped. It
was short of soldiers and short of a lot of the key qualified leaders that any
military unit needs to have in place to perform effectively.
GROSS: You write, "The unit had allowed too many old, out of shape and
drug-using men in its ranks, making whatever accommodations were necessary to
keep soldiers on the roll." So what were the men in the ranks like?
Mr. FLYNN: Well, that was the opinions of one of the captains that I
interviewed for the book, and he had come from another unit where the quality
of the soldiers and the equipment was at a higher level, and he was shocked
when he came into the Fighting 69th and saw that the soldiers were not of the
GROSS: The way you describe it, most of the men in the Fighting 69th really
didn't expect to be called on to defend New York after September 11th, didn't
expect to be sent to Iraq. They expected to, you know, report for duty--what
is it?--once a month.
Mr. FLYNN: One weekend a month and two weeks every summer, that's the
GROSS: Yeah. And hopefully to get some college tuition payments and so on.
But, you know, that's not the way it worked out. After September 11th, once
the men were called on to participate in the defense of New York, what was the
reaction within the Fighting 69th at being, you know, really called on to
Mr. FLYNN: Nobody hesitated to respond to September 11th. Everybody was
there. This was New York City. This was our backyard. And everybody went to
the armory without a call, put their gear together and worked their way down
to ground zero with the battalion. But following that, as weeks turned into
months turned into years of homeland security duty in the New York City area
and also at the US military academy at West Point, a lot of the soldiers said,
`Now wait a minute, this isn't what I signed up for. I was there for ground
zero, I helped that. I was there for 9/11, that was the crisis. But this
year of duty is not what I signed up for and maybe I need to rethink my
membership in the National Guard.' And about 30 percent of the soldiers wound
up leaving the National Guard at that time.
GROSS: How did you feel about taking into battle a battalion of men who
weren't trained for it and who, you know, you describe as being not prepared?
Mr. FLYNN: You know, the commander of the 69th had written a newsletter to
the force prior to going to Iraq, and he said, `Don't worry, the Army will
prepare us. You will be more prepared for Iraq than you can ever imagine.'
But, in fact, as we got closer to getting on the plane to fly to the Middle
East, it occurred to him that we're not ready. We are not as ready as he
thought we would be. And that went through the minds, I think, of all the
units. We all wanted more training and we all wanted to be better and have
more equipment. You know, more is better, I guess, is what we were thinking.
But at the end of the day, we had to go.
GROSS: What were you lacking in terms of training and equipment?
Mr. FLYNN: The equipment, actually, was not a significant issue. By 2004,
when the Fighting 69th went to Iraq, the military industrial complex had
really ramped up to start getting armor and new helmets and body armor out to
the soldiers, so we didn't lack in that regard. We got it all new as we were
getting ready to go over. What we lacked, though, was the time to train on
that equipment; because it was coming in so fast, we were never training on
it. And, you know, though as an infantry company commander I may have wanted
to have trained my men on how to properly attack an insurgent force inside of
a building, instead I might have to focus on, `Well, how do we use this new
radio that we just got?'
GROSS: So were you in the position of having to explain to the soldiers why
they didn't get the training they were promised and why they had to fight
Mr. FLYNN: Yes. All of the leadership in the Fighting 69th found themselves
in the middle of Kuwait getting ready to drive north into the middle of
Baghdad for a fight that none of them thought would ever take place, for a
mission none of them thought the National Guard would ever do. And the
soldiers looked and said, `Where is the rest of the training that we need to
do this?' And we had to look at them in the eye and say, `We've got what we've
got, but we've got to go forward and give it our best.'
GROSS: One of the missions that the Fighting 69th had was in Taji. What was
the mission there?
Mr. FLYNN: Taji is a rural area about 25 miles north of Baghdad. Like most
of the areas around Iraq, it was very heavily canalled for use by farming. It
had houses kind of remotely spread out here and there. And the job of the
Fighting 69th was essentially to secure that area so that insurgents didn't go
into there and lob rockets and mortars into the big major bases inside of
Baghdad. And the 69th was effective. Even without a traditional battle
handover like most units were receiving, the 69th was able to go out and, just
by driving around the roads and putting themselves in the area, that
immediately reduced that indirect fire attack. But it certainly created other
Mr. FLYNN: What you might refer to as roadside bombs, which, in Taji we did
not have roadside bombs as much as we had "roadbed" bombs. An explosion did
not go off on the side of the road; the entire road blew up with massive
amounts of explosive power far greater than any of our armored vehicles,
whether they be armored humvees or even very heavily armored Bradley fighting
vehicles could resist. The nature of those explosives could defeat absolutely
any piece of equipment that the US Army had in Iraq.
GROSS: What was the worst hit you took?
Mr. FLYNN: Two years ago, in this month in 2005, the 69th lost a fully
loaded Bradley fighting vehicle with seven soldiers inside. It was driving
down a rural road alongside of a canal, a road that we had to use because
there were only a handful of roads. So the enemy could probably guess that we
would be there and he did, and he guessed well. And he hit that armored
vehicle, destroying it completely, tossing several tons of steel and armor and
soldiers through the air till it was upside down in a canal. And it was such
a powerful charge that, very much like September 11th, we had to use
ultimately DNA samples to confirm the casualties onboard that vehicle.
GROSS: What was the reaction of the men to this attack? I mean, these were
men who hadn't signed up for full service in the military. They had just
signed up for the national guard. And after an attack like this, where you
can't even identify the remains of the soldiers, did they want to continue
fighting or did they feel like, `Why are we here?'
Mr. FLYNN: I think you saw a little bit of both. In that first two months
of combat in Iraq, the Fighting 69th lost 10 soldiers, and several men had to
decide whether or not they were going to be able to handle this. Some men
cracked under the pressure and had to be reassigned or taken out of key
positions. And after we lost the Bradley, even the commander of the Fighting
69th was shaken to the point where he said, `I wasn't sure that I could send
the unit back out into the field' because he believed that sending one more
patrol outside into rural Iraq was a death sentence for the soldiers. It was
the soldiers themselves who walked into his office and said, `Sir, we're going
to go back out and we're going to go back out hard.' And I think there's a
point in warfare where soldiers realize that they could die at any moment, and
the men of the 69th realized very quickly that they could die at any moment
and they had two choices: they could either get over it or they could curl up
into a fetal position and no longer perform.
GROSS: So were they successful in striking back?
Mr. FLYNN: They were. But success is always limited in insurgent warfare.
You know, it's not as if you are taking a line or, you know, `We've captured
such and such a town and the enemy is now on the other side of the river.'
It's not as clear-cut as that.
What the Fighting 69th did to respond was pour every single soldier and piece
of equipment they had into that area of Taji. They went without sleep. They
went without rest for days and days and days and beat the brushes, asking,
trying to find out where the enemy was and trying to stay so omnipresent that
the enemy did not have a chance to strike back. It was a successful operation
because, again, they were not attacking the big bases with mortars and
rockets, and it reduced their amount or their ability to attack the 69th with
GROSS: My guest is Sean Michael Flynn, author of the new book "The Fighting
69th." Flynn commanded two rifle companies in the Fighting 69th, a New York
National Guard unit that he describes as undertrained and underequipped for
battle. But in 2004, they were sent to Iraq where, among other things, they
fought insurgents in Taji near Baghdad.
After Taji, the Fighting 69th was assigned to guard the road that became known
as the most dangerous road in the world, the road from the Baghdad airport to
the green zone. And it sounds like that was actually a very transformative
experience for the Fighting 69th. In what way?
Mr. FLYNN: The battalion entered Iraq lacking the training that it fully
wanted, and it had all that on-the-job combat training, which was a very
costly way to go to war in Iraq. By the time we got to Route Irish, however,
we now had the training, and the Fighting 69th was, at the least, on par with
any other active duty battalion now serving in Iraq. So the unit and the men
who were so concerned in Kuwait, who were scared about the unit's level of
training and who were scared about its leadership, now had a chance to see the
unit fully trained and to have seen its leaders, those that made it through
Taji, functioning. And they now had confidence in themselves and confidence
in their leadership. And they did not have that confidence going into Iraq.
It was only three months into the war that that confidence started to reach
the soldiers, and that took place on Route Irish, and it made the Fighting
69th a very effective combat unit, and the men took a lot of pride in their
capabilities on that road.
GROSS: During the period that you write about, which ends in 2006, how many
men did the Fighting 69th lose in Iraq?
Mr. FLYNN: Nineteen soldiers out of approximately 750, and another 85 were
wounded. Those are fairly steep numbers for this war and perhaps among the
highest in any National Guard unit that deployed overseas. It was a costly,
costly fight. And those are just the combat casualties, because back at home
the war had took its toll on the people, as well. Two of my platoon leaders,
in fact, lost their marriages during that time period, and that was a regular
occurrence throughout the battalion. So whatever stresses people had at home
were exacerbated by the war. So the casualties from that tour were high.
GROSS: How have the men who were under your command done since returning
Mr. FLYNN: They've done very well. Certainly some soldiers have had some
issues. You know, there are some soldiers who have signs of post-traumatic
stress disorder and who are being treated for that. But the number is very
small. And there are some soldiers who were wounded, some severely, who are
doing great. I had a soldier that worked very closely with me who lost the
use of his left arm, and most of his left arm in the process. And he's now
running triathlons. And I'm impressed. They're not just even Paralympic
triathlons, but these are triathlons that you and I are running, and he's
placing, and he only has the use of one of his arms.
So it's, you know, so the soldiers are doing great across the board, in my
opinion, though I don't think a day goes by where any of them think about
their tour and think about the cost and their friends that they left behind.
GROSS: Is there any chance that the men who served with you from the National
Guard battalion of the Fighting 69th will be redeployed and sent back to Iraq?
Mr. FLYNN: More than 300 soldiers of the Fighting 69th are, as we speak,
headed towards Afghanistan or about to head towards Afghanistan. Among those
soldiers are men who served at ground zero, who did homeland defense duty in
and around the United States, who went Iraq, and they're now going on to
Afghanistan. Every soldier who served in Iraq in the Fighting 69th and who is
now going to Afghanistan volunteered to go.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. FLYNN: Thanks so much, Terry. It's been my pleasure.
GROSS: Sean Michael Flynn is the author of "The Fighting 69th." He's now a
captain in the Army National Guard.
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